An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
PAPUA New Guinea is sometimes called the land of the unexpected. What is expected, though, is corruption, spread thickly everywhere.
Corruption, often associated with the public service, is discussed everywhere: from betelnut stall to the most sophisticated hotel conference room.
Consultants have made oodles of money running courses talking about it and Australia has sent armies of advisers claiming to help PNG improve measures against it.
Very little has been achieved to prevent or even check corruption. Corruption is a relentless creature, moving constantly and continuously, aggressively taking on anyone who challenges it, and apparently winning and gaining ground.
In PNG it seems that those who profess to fight corruption are either paying lip service or simply not doing enough. People love talking about corruption. Doing something about it, however, seems much harder and many people avoid doing anything but talk about it.
All the while, corruption grows like a horrible cancer, spreading through all parts of the country, infecting societies and communities and the individuals within them.
It seems to saturate PNG and has become so much the norm that it is not only expected, it is increasingly accepted.
It is present in just about every government department and statutory organisation. In the pubic sector, good governance seems a Utopian fantasy, out of reach and impossible to attain. More talking goes on. More of nothing gets done about it.
Leaders preach against corruption while it progresses relentlessly - doing as it pleases: an inflated contract here, a dubious scam there, the improper appointment of a crony. All the while the rhetoric drones on against corruption.
But corruption is not confined to the public sector. The public sector is just one of two hands that claps.
What is less spoken about is corruption in the private sector. When one speaks of corruption and how the private sector plays a part in it, it seems that one does not feel so much outrage and disgust.
“Poor you! You had to pay what? That’s outrageous!”
What is hardly ever said is: “Maybe you should not have paid!”
Well apparently it’s all the public sector’s fault. They came out of their office and demanded a fee for doing what we’d already paid for. But someone did pay the additional ‘fee’. That’s right. Two hands clapping. Loudly.
But we choose to hear only the claps of the hand that is the public sector. Why? Because it represents “them”, not the private sector, which represents “us” and no one likes to admit they are wrong, much less they did something wrong.
That’s an instinctive human defence mechanism – to plead innocence, to deny guilt and to justify and rationalise so we choose not to hear the sounds of private sector hand clapping to the beat of corruption.
Sorry to have introduced this intrusive thought and to have burst the bubble of those living their carefree ignorantly blissful lives as if corruption had nothing to do with them.
Whether or not we like it, we may be involved, unwittingly perhaps, or pretending to be ignorant. As the Mafia saying goes “one hand washes the other” meaning one cannot benefit without the other. Both parties are equally responsible.
Hear that? Two hands clapping– public and private sectors, listen to them both. Now you can hear it I’m sure.
Let us look at some real examples from Papua New Guinea. For instance expatriates working in PNG illegally in breach of employment laws. This is an easy one.
It goes like this.
A number of expatriates enter PNG and work in PNG on business visas. The excuse is that it takes too long to process employment visas. But that does not remove the fact that they are in breach of their visa provisions because the business visa does not allow one to be employed.
They well know when they are filling in various forms to enter PNG that they are coming in to work and not be a tourist or engage only in activities sanctioned by a business visa.
So they enter, under false pretences, are employed and often pay no taxes. Most people in this situation will say, “Well, that’s not my fault. It’s the organisation that employs me, it’s their responsibility and I’m not going to question them. I’m just here to do a job!”
Really? But you knew you were coming to work here. To earn a living. You knew when you filled out the migration forms and lied in that section about what you were coming to do in PNG. You knew that when you said you were coming in as a “tourist” or to do “business”, you were coming to work and earn a taxable income. So, is this not dishonesty?
Another example. There are businesses that avoid taxes because they employ clever accounting firms or tax agents or customs agents to process paperwork and facilitate activities at minimal cost.
Some of these agents ensure that business is expedited through offering bribes or by providing misleading information - for example falsification of customs entry documentation or tax returns. So, is this not fraud?
We should ask ourselves, does putting a layer of ignorance between you and that which is obscure make it right? Does it help if someone else is dishonest for you and ‘removes’ you from direct responsibility for corruption?
Of course not! Ignorance of the law is no defence in any court. Laws have been breached! Just because no one checks does not make it right.
PNG’s Migration, Taxation and Customs departments are terribly understaffed and so is the Labor department, so checks are slow or not even done at all. Only when someone with a vendetta or grudge wants action and is willing to press it does enforcement activity occur.
Then suddenly people are fined, prosecuted and even deported.
There are many examples of private sector corruption. We can examine activities such as whether the local supermarket pay all its due taxes or whether people declare the gold they’re taking out or whether they honest in completing their customs and immigration documentation.
Do you believe it’s OK to give the customs official or traffic police officer a small gift because ‘that’s what they do here’?” Yes, clapping all round.
And what about when your bank claims to support a green economy but funds a company that will kill off life-forms on the sea bed it will mine?
What about the banks that finance companies involved in illegal land grabbing and illegal business activities? Are they not corrupt in some way?
What about the individuals who sell luxury items like cars and houses to corrupt politicians or businessmen and take money corruptly acquired? Does it not bother them that this money was intended for an aid post in some rural area that is now unable to treat the sick?
How about claiming you provide the cheapest phone call rates but eat up all the credit within seconds of the initiation of a call?
On and on it goes…examples abound everywhere. If you listen carefully, two hands are clapping. And in PNG it’s near deafening.
And if you keep listening you will also hear the weeping of the parents of the children who died because they could not access the vital services they needed. Denied by corruption.